Project Canterbury

Theodora Phranza; or, the Fall of Constantinople

By John Mason Neale

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1913.
First published London: J. Masters, 1857.

Chapter XXIV.

"Fire! bring me fire! Stand close, and urge the foe!
Jove gives us now a day worth all the past!
The ships are ours, which in the Gods despite
Steered hither.".....

Iliad, XV.

"Is the danger, then, so very imminent?" inquired Leontius (some two hours later on the same night) of a withered old man, with whom he was shut up in his tent alone.

"Most imminent; most deadly," replied the renegade Baltazar, chief astrologer to Mahomet, spreading a parchment, inscribed with a horoscope, on the table; "It is clear to every one. Look for yourself, my Lord! In one hour from this time a most deadly sign will stand in the House of Life. Observe here, again, the sextile, and in the secundan!"

"Is there no hope?" asked Leontius, turning very pale.

"Nay, that I said not," answered the astrologer. "This I say,--that seldom or never have I beheld a more malignant conjunction of the planets: and there are some things in it which puzzle even me."

"Do you mean," inquired Leontius, in a trembling voice, "that it is absolutely fated I shall perish this night?"

"The time of no man's death is absolutely fated," replied Baltazar. "It is foreknown by Allah, but not foredecreed by Him. In all men's lives are certain times of danger,--some of greater, some of less: any one of these may be avoided; some one, it is morally certain, cannot be. Were you to live five hundred years, I could still tell you the epochs of danger that would beset you: but hardly can you have one worse than this."

"Is there no means of guarding against it?" said Leontius.

"I will read you what I can," replied the astrologer, "and you may be able to draw inferences which I cannot. Mars in perigee, and in the corner house,--whereby his influence is tripled: it will be in open strife. Corradiate with him is Sol; but then he, again, is confronted by Saturn. Your danger is also from fire. And then Venus is opposed to you,--now entering the quartile. I see that some time agone Saturn was lord of the ascendant: but then he was held in check by Venus; now she also is against you."

"What, then, would you have me to do?"

"By no means stir out to-night. Jupiter is powerless; there is not one star that can render you service. As you value your life, stir not out to-night."

As he spoke, an eunuch entered. "Lord Leontius," said he, "the Sultan desires your instant attendance."

"I will come at once," replied Leontius. "Go on before--I will follow instantly. There, good Baltazar, it is not in my power to act by your advice."

"The evil influences of the stars are even now commencing," said the astrologer. "Mars will be in his perigee in one hour and ten minutes from this time. If you survive that period, let this be your comfort: I see a long course of honour, and glory, and wealth before you. Now go: but I would be well armed. Avoid strife, as far as you can; but, above all things avoid fire."

Leontius hastily armed himself; and on arriving at the Sultan's tent, found several of the Pashas assembled in council. Mahomet himself was standing at the head of the table, and had been speaking loudly and hurriedly.

"By the Prophet, Lord Leontius, I thought you would never come. We have intelligence that they intend an attack on the mole to-night. You have so well acquitted yourself of your charge in the transport of the galleys, that we intend to give the conduct of the defence to yourself and Achmet Pasha."

Leontius knelt, and thanked the Sultan, cursing in his own heart the fate which thus led him into open strife when he was most anxious to avoid it. However, it was less dangerous to accept than to refuse the trust; and gathering courage from despair, the traitor received his instructions, and then hastened to join Achmet, who had gone before, at the mole.

The council at Sir Edward de Rushton's metcecia was short, but satisfactory; and within half an hour from its conclusion, the various noblemen and officers who had assisted at "it were on board their respective galleys. Phranza, indeed, and the Great Logothete, Lucas Notaras, by the Emperor's express commands, took no part in the actual operations. He had quoted the line of Hesiod--

"Let men in council, youth in arms engage; Prayer is the proper duty of old age:"--

and had represented to them that, while a thousand could fight better, none could counsel so well. It was a sad parting, too, between De Rushton and Theodora: but on these things we must not dwell. We are rapidly approaching that period of the city's history when private joys and griefs seem of infinitely small importance. Even now, the last assault was preparing; the engineers were at work on their last implements of mischief; the end was drawing very near. For the last time the brave defenders of the Roman Empire acted on the offensive.

Justiniani, who, in virtue of the allies he had brought to the succour of the Emperor, took the lead of the expedition, chose the Unicorn as his vessel. De Rushton, as second in command, made choice of the Bucentaur; while Gabriel Notaras claimed the third place, and selected the S. Irene. Faithful to his promise, De Rushton procured Contari leave to serve on board the Unicorn,--Burstow was with him also. The other vessels, seven in number, were commanded by the Curopalata, the Great Drungaire, Galeotti, and other noblemen; while Choniates, in virtue of his acquaintance with maritime affairs, was allowed the command of the single brigantine that attended on larger vessels.

It was about an hour before midnight that the Unicorn, under easy sail, led the way up the Horn. The strictest silence was enjoined and observed, and the ripple round the bows was the only sound that could have given an enemy warning of his danger. How Mahomet received intelligence of the surprise intended was never known: but it had reached him early enough in the evening to enable him to be fully on his guard. His galleys were manned; the mole defended with a picked body of Janissaries; and a strong reserve posted in the archery ground, to act as necessity should require. He himself, though not intending to take any actual part in the contest, was near the mole, to animate the combaters with his presence, if need should so require.

And now, to all outward appearance, Contari was himself again. He had received his directions; he had ten Varangians under his special command; and his particular office was, if possible, to fire the mole. To this end, every one of his men was provided with a kettle of hot pitch, and a quick-match twisted round his short pike: a party of native troops were to defend these, and, in their turn, were equipped with axes, chisels, and mallets, for the purpose of destroying, if they could not burn the mole.

"They seem quite quiet," said Justiniani, in a low voice, to Contari, by whom he was standing.

"Rather too quiet to please me," answered Contari. "I do not see one sentinel's fire all along the Horn: there are none of the usual signs that a great army is there. It looks suspicious."

"Why, what should you suspect?" asked the Genoese commander. "It is absolutely impossible that Mahomet can have received intelligence of our design."

"Without treachery, it is," replied Contari: "only secure us against that, and we shall succeed to-night."

"We shall soon know," answered Justiniani. "Captain, we will board from the larboard side."

"Very well, sir."

"We are only concerned with the mole," said the Genoese, "as you know. The other galleys must take the fleet. They will pass us. Are the grappling-irons ready?"

"Ay, ay, sir," replied one of the officers.

"Be sure to cast off when I give the word," said the other. "Contari, get the men to the gangway. Do you make it out well, captain?"

"Tolerably well," he replied, at the same time taking the helm. "We shall be abreast of it in a minute."

The grappling-irons were out; the dark lanthorns provided; the combustibles in readiness; the Greek fire prepared; it waited only for the signal. In another moment, creeping gently up to the mole, and giving no further sign of touching it than by the creaking of her ribs, the Unicorn was abreast of it; and Contari, leaping lightly out, made fast the first grappling-iron, while the Varangians and other soldiers swarmed over the sides of the vessel like bees, on to the pier.

In an instant there was a blaze; and almost simultaneously, from mole, galleys, and shore, burst the shout of "La illah ilia Allah!" echoed from a hundred thousand voices. Lights ran up in every direction on the Turkish galleys; fires, one after another, kindled along shore; and five minutes had not elapsed, when it became evident that the whole scheme was known, and that the combat would be carried on not in darkness, but in artificial daylight.

"Keep them back! keep them back only for five minutes!" cried Contari, leaping forward into the very centre of the body of Janissaries who were pouring forward to extinguish the fire. Nor was the combat so unequal as it seemed. The mole was narrow: the Christians could, therefore, meet their enemies with an equal front; fresh troops were poured forth from the Unicorn, while De Rushton, seeing the hopelessness of surprising the galleys, ran the Bucentaur alongside of the other ship, and hurried forward his own men over her deck to hold the mole till it should be set on fire. At that first onset, the Varangians had driven the Janissaries beyond the great cannon: if that part of the pier, therefore, could only be kindled, the immense piece of ordnance must be lost. Pitch, grease, and turpentine were dashed over the boards, and into the casks on which they rested; here and there the timbers were fairly alight; in every direction diligent hands were fostering the flames; while, far from losing ground, Contari and Justiniani seemed advancing, and the Janissaries by no means maintained their usual reputation. The other galleys, meanwhile, though outmatched by tenfold odds, steered boldly into the very midst of the Turkish fleet; and a brigantine of the infidels was soon wrapped in a sheet of flame.

Mahomet, meanwhile, seeing that there was great risk of his armament, so painfully conveyed into harbour, utterly perishing, gave orders to Calil Pasha, whom he had retained by his side, that the artillery. should be brought to bear upon the mole. The astonished Pasha threw himself on his knees.

"My Lord Sultan," cried he, "we shall hurt our own troops as much as those of the infidels, or more."

"I know it," replied Mahomet; "but we shall save the mole."

"I will pray your Highness," pleaded the Pasha, "to suspend this order but for a few moments: it will not then be too late, and we shall avoid the horrible carnage, and save many a brave man who will render your Majesty good service another day."

"Five minutes be it, then," said Mahomet, "but not a second more," and with that respite Calil was forced to content himself.

Leontius, finding that the infidels were losing ground, and giving up his life for lost, was a third time, in the courage of despair,.advancing and rallying his men, when he was singled out by Contari.

"I will have that man's life, or perish," said he to Burstow, by whom he found himself in the melee. And he attacked him with an impetuosity that showed him to be more eager for the traitor's destruction, than for his own preservation. Leontius, himself no contemptible swordsman, was totally confounded by that shower of blows rained down on him in every direction: yet even from the very vehemence of the attack he might have been better able to defend himself, had not the prediction of the astrologer weighed down all his hopes. Step by step he retired,--guarding himself, however, with great skill and caution, till on the very edge of the mole; and there he was forced to stand at bay: for the crowd of soldiers behind presented an impenetrable mass; and though he would fain have mingled among them, the confusion of the whole scene, and the impetuosity of Contari's attack, rendered it impossible. On the very edge, then, he stood, perilously confronting the Varangian, when, just at the moment that the strife was hottest between them, the flaming brigantine drifted beneath, and the blaze played round and scorched the combatants on the pier. Remembering then Baltazar's warning, and seeing no other hope, Leontius threw away his sword, and, by a dexterous movement, clasped Contari round the body, and endeavoured to drag him over the side. But the wretched man was no match in strength for his adversary. The Varangian raised him from the ground, and, in spite of his struggles and cries, forced him to the very edge. Here, with the energy of despair, the brigantine glowing and crackling below him, he clutched at a post that was fixed there for the purpose of making a galley fast to,--missed it,--caught the chain that was fastened to it, and at the same moment was hurled by Contari over the side. Still he hung by the chain, suspended over the brigantine: the Varangian raised his sword to cut at the apostate's hands, and force him to relax his hold--his burning grave yawning for him beneath.

At that moment, Baltazar was afterwards wont to say, the fatal period passed. Baltha Ogli, at the very instant Contari's arm was raised, struck him on the head with the tremendous spiked mace which was his favourite weapon. Helmet and skull crashed together; and, plunging like a diver, Contari fell head foremost into the burning vessel,--sending up a shower of sparks as he came on the glowing timbers, and then disappearing.

"Hold fast! hold fast!" shouted Baltha Ogli. "Your other hand, my Lord. So!--Ahmed, a hand here!--that is well!" And Leontius, half suffocated with the smoke and heat, was drawn up, and again stood in comparative safety.

At the same moment, a message arrived from Calil Pasha, that if the infidels were not at once repulsed, the Turkish cannon would sweep the pile, indiscriminate of friend or foe. Such tidings roused the Janissaries to the utmost; and almost at the same second a blaze rose from the ill-fated Unicorn.

"Burstow," said Justiniani, "there is no time to be lost. Get the men together, and retreat in as good order as you may. Where is De Rushton?"

"In the Unicorn, I think, my Lord. I will keep them off, while you embark."

De Rushton had, indeed, hurried into the galley as soon as it had caught fire, for the purpose of getting it off from the mole, and preventing the spread of the conflagration.

Then there was a scene of the wildest uproar. The terrified sailors were pushing the burning vessel from the mole; the Bucentaur was pressing into the place that the Unicorn had occupied; the Janissaries pouring forward, and driving the Christians back foot by foot, in spite of Burstow's most vigorous resistance; the other Genoese galleys closed in upon by the whole Turkish fleet; shouts and outcries, commands and inquiries; every now and then a heavy plunge into the sea; wretches supporting themselves by clinging to the mole, or to the sides of the vessels, and crying piteously to be taken in; shrieks from the scorching or burning; clashing of weapons; ejaculations of despair, or shouts of victory.

The ramparts on the east side of Constantinople were crowded with spectators: for the conflagration made the general outline of objects perfectly clear. The Emperor was there in person: so was Phranza, and Lucas Notaras. It had long been seen that a surprise was out of the question, and great had been the wonder that, nevertheless, the conflict should have been continued. Intense was the anxiety, as blaze after blaze shot up into the sky, to know whence it sprung, whether from the mole, whether from the Christian or from the Turkish galleys. Gradually it became evident that the attack was being beaten off; a huge vessel floated burning on the Horn, which some of the old seamen who had been summoned by Constantine to come nearer, declared to be the Unicorn. Then another seemed equally abandoned; till at length four galleys stood across the Horn: evidently the poor remains of the Grecian fleet. Long and anxious was the gaze for their companions: on they came, under press of sail, followed by six or seven of the Turkish brigantines, but crowding all sail, as if for escape, and bearing up for Port S. Peter. Thither rode the Emperor, followed by his attendants, and the other nobles.

Now again we change the scene.

A lofty, spacious apartment, panelled in cedar, arabesqued with gold,--the floor soft with Smyrniote carpets, the ceiling painted in the Byzantine fashion. One silver lamp, fed with sweet oil of Orfa, made a pleasant, dim light, that fell softly on the silken hangings and golden fringes of the stately bed. Shutters of cedar excluded light and sound; heavy curtains of velvet fell over them; and, in that besieged city, the room was as still, as perfectly hushed, as if it had been placed in the middle of a wilderness.

Long had Theodora in vain endeavoured to sleep. Long had she wearied herself in fancying--for she could not hear--shouts and outcries, and the distant tumult of the battle. She had heard the great church thunder out its summons for the midnight service; she had watched till the mesorion, or midway prayers, were chanted, one hour and a half after: but then anxiety, and grief, and weariness had their natural effect, and she slept as calmly and peacefully as an infant.

Towards four o'clock there was a step on the stairs,--a kind of bustle in the house,--a hand on the latch of the door,--and De Rushton entered, worn-out, dejected, spiritless. Quietly, however, he entered, and listened if Theodora were awake; then, gently drawing aside the curtain, he leant over her, watching for several minutes the quiet beauty of her sleep.

"Yes, I will wake her," said he, at length, as if he hat! been debating the point with himself; "who knows how many days more we may have together?" He took the small, fair hand that lay on the coverlid, and raised it to his lips,--and Theodora woke.

"Oh, Edward," she exclaimed, "thank God that you are safely here again! But how miserably fatigued you look! What has happened? Is there aught the matter?"

"We have been defeated at all points," replied De Rushton. "Never was failure greater. Some traitor had revealed the scheme, and they were prepared for us."

"But are you quite safe yourself? Are you sure that you are not hurt?"

"Not in the least, dearest one, not in the least; but it has been a dreadful night. Seven of our galleys out of eleven have been burnt or taken; we have lost four or five hundred men, at least, and among them poor Contari,--and now we have absolutely nothing to oppose longer against the Turks."

"It is sad, very, very sad," said Theodora. "But yet, we may have a better defence than our ships. Tell me. though,--the Exarch Choniates; is he safe?"

"Slightly wounded--a mere scratch--and the brave old man thinks nothing of it."

"Euphrasia was in dreadful terror about him. She has not been so much used as I have to know that those I loved were in battle. But I have that to tell you that will please you much: the Lord Chrysolaras is certainly much better. I saw him quite late last night. Theophrastus said that it would do him no harm; and you, I knew, would be glad I should."

"Most glad, my own love. That is indeed joyful news. I wish you could have seen the Emperor to-night, when he received the tidings of our failure. Great he has ever been; never so truly great as then,--praising the courage and zeal of the men as much as if they had returned from a victory; telling them that he was satisfied that what could be done by human power had been done by them; that he and they were in God's hands; that if He so pleased, He could interfere, even without a miracle, for their preservation; that He might, perhaps, let the city be reduced so far, to the end He might at last stretch forth the Right Hand of His protection the more gloriously."

"Oh that it might be so!" cried Theodora. "But we will trust in Him still."

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